By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
Carried by election workers in open arms the first votes arrived in a trickle. Over a five-hour period the trickle became a tributary, then a stream, then a river, before the river burst its banks like a pent-up electoral dam and delivered for Sinn Féin its first ever assembly seat in Lagan Valley.
A nerve-wrecking experience, it was a privilege to watch this long-awaited breakthrough.
Its arrival was nothing short of stunning.
In Lagan Valley, a constituency dominated by the most reactionary and bigoted brand of unionism in the six counties, a determined group of Catholics and nationalists had their own private political revolution in the safety of the polling booth.
They did what many people thought was impossible. They elected a Sinn Féin assembly member.
In doing so they joined with tens of thousands of nationalists across the six counties who voted Sinn Féin and brought to an end their long years of isolation from the mainstream of northern political life.
By electing a Sinn Féin assembly member, Lagan Valley nationalists, especially those living in the rural part of the constituency, effectively broke through a unionist blockade of their political, cultural and religious identity - a blockade in place since partition.
They overcame the understandable fear that comes with living as a nationalist, Catholic minority, scattered across a huge unionist/loyalist rural sprawl.
In rural Lagan Valley and Lisburn town that fear is real.
During the election campaign I met Sinn Féin voters whose neighbours told them they voted Sinn Féin but they did not. They were afraid to go to the polling station for fear their unionist neighbours would see them and suspect them of voting Sinn Féin. They preferred the humiliation of lying to their Catholic neighbours rather than run the risk of what might happen should their Protestant neighbours suspect them of voting Sinn Féin.
A mother of six children told me that for the last 20 years she has taken her children to school by car every day. On their own, their Catholic school uniform was enough for them to be attacked.
A father told me his teenage sons cover up their GAA tops or hid them in their training bags out of fear.
In some areas young men and women travel 15 miles to meet people their own age in a friendly bar or disco.
Catholics driven from their homes; kerb stones, country lanes, telegraph poles, trees and lamp posts, indeed entire villages are adorned with and display unionist and loyalist emblems.
In rural Lagan Valley some nationalists also believe they are being squeezed out of the constituency by impact of decisions within the planning system.
Application after application to build homes on family-owned land has been turned down in circumstances which have caused concern.
All this is added to by the institutional brand emanating from Lisburn Council, the seat of local government in the constituency.
All of that is set to change and there is no better representative than the newly-elected assembly member for the constituency, Paul Butler, to deliver that change. A skilled campaigner he has battled against Lisburn Council’s discriminatory practices for the last 10 years.
Delivering change was Sinn Féin’s election battle cry. They received a spectacular and overwhelming endorsement for it from the nationalist electorate across the six counties.
They polled more than 180,000 votes and picked up 28 seats, four extra - Lagan Valley, South Antrim, where Mitchel McLaughlin topped the poll, West Tyrone and West Belfast where the party stood five candidates and incredibly took five of the six seats. This outstanding performance was matched in Mid-Ulster where Sinn Féin’s three candidates not only topped the poll they topped the quota.
In every other constituency republicans have a good news election story. One particularly close to my heart is the strong poll in Belfast’s Short Strand - a good omen for a city council seat.
With a brilliant election result behind him Gerry Adams MP, MLA, will lead northern republicans southwards with the intention of building on his success here in the southern election.